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Jewish Reflections on War and Peace – Part 1

By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

The following is an extract from Rabbi Jeremy Gordon’s book ‘Spiritual Vagabondry’. It reflects on Jewish approaches to war and peace, which Rabbi Jeremy will discuss in more detail at the Masorti Judaism lawyers’ event on Tuesday 30 June.  

Judaism believes in peace, loves peace and prays and works towards peace. The greatest visions of the Bible are of the wolf lying down with lamb (Isaiah 11) and of swords being beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2). Beyond the Bible the Rabbis, in their codification of Jewish life, infused every major prayer experience of the Jew with the yearning for peace. The second century sage Rav Shimon son of Halafta, says ‘a blessing is useless unless it comes with peace’ (BMidbar Rabba 11). The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Yom Tov Isbili, known as the Ritba (Spain d. 1330) collated a list of codified Jewish prayers that have as their conclusion the plea for peace; it includes the grace after meals, the principal doxology (Kaddish), the central prayer of evening, morning and afternoon services (Amidah), the priestly blessing (Numbers 6) and others. Judaism believes in peace.  

  

But the Hebrew Bible also knows violence. The commandment lo tirzah (Exodus 20:13) is inaccurately translated in the King James Bible as ‘thou shall not kill’. The correct rendition of the original Hebrew is ‘thou shall not murder’. The Bible justifies and even demands violence, even unto killing, on too many occasions to list. That said there is a noteworthy attitude towards violence that suffuses not only the Bible, but also the project of Rabbinic Judaism. Time and time again in the Bible and Rabbinic texts one can see the impulse to violence and war subjected to controls designed to ameliorate the destructive potential of military brutality.  

  

The Bible mandates (Deut 20 & 21) that an invading army should offer peace to a city before waging war against it. One can see the same tendency in Rabbinic texts.  Maimonides, (d. 1204) the greatest of medieval Jewish sages, set out precise Laws of War in his code the Mishneh Torah. One mandate demands that ‘when besieging a city in order to capture it, you should not surround it on all four sides, but only on three sides, allowing an escape path for anyone who wishes to save his life’.   

  

Aside from noting the seeming military lunacy of a three-sided siege there are two other points to note when considering the significance of this kind of religious engagement with war. Firstly, while Maimonides is able to produce a Biblical verse to justify his codification (Numbers 31:7), on the face of it the verse mandates no such behaviour; Maimonides need not have included this mandate, he’s willing the mandate into existence driven by a greater sense and understanding of what Judaism must stand for. Secondly this militarily self-defeating mandate has had practical impact for the contemporary Israeli army, as will be discussed below.   

  

It’s important to understand that for close to 2,000 years Maimonides’ demands were of no practical import whatsoever. The dominant norm governing Judaism’s engagement with violence was not that of a military power, squaring military necessity and morality, but that of a wandering, stateless, army-less people subject to the attitudes to violence of other nations and nationally enshrined faiths.   

  

In 70CE the Romans destroyed the Israelite State based around Jerusalem, in the years before and after this all the other vestiges of Jewish national and military presence were also erased. Judaism became a people with no physical border to protect, no army and no possibility of waging war. From Seleucids to Romans to Christians to Muslims, across time and place Jews have been persecuted, beaten, burnt, and, in a period as dark as humanity has experienced, been subject to a level of genocidal brutality beyond decent humans’ ability to imagine.   

Throughout almost two millennia of Diaspora existence Jews were forbidden from bearing arms and, by and large, accepted this and other externally imposed regulations as the cost of survival, of ‘doing business’, in a world governed by foreign might. Jews became pacifists by circumstance. Any drive to conquer territory was sublimated into mercantile endeavour or the exegetical engagement characteristic of Rabbinic Judaism. In place of soldiers Judaism valorised scholars. 

The Rabbis even turned the soldiers of the Bible into intellectuals. The Book of Samuel refers to David, slayer of Goliath, as ‘a brave fighter and man of war’.  The Talmud explains this means he knew how to argue his point in ‘the war of Torah’ (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 93b). Offered only the opportunity of military surrender, Jews and Judaism waged war on the entire notion of military bravado and, playing by rules they themselves constructed, declared themselves victorious without recourse to sword or bullet.  

  

In part two of this extract, appearing next week, Rabbi Gordon addresses Jewish responses to war during and after the Holocaust and foundation of the modern State of Israel.  

  

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue. 

Posted on 4 June 2015

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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